All roads lead to Prague – mostly because its most famous resident, Rudolf II, is Holy Roman Emperor, king of Bohemia and Hungary, and ruler of countless other places in Europe. The city has much to dazzle, but unsuspecting tourists beware: danger lurks around every corner
When to go
While the city is in some ways more pleasant in the summer it is also then more prone to devastating outbreaks of fatal sickness, which can be an inconvenience for tourists. In the winter months it is bitterly cold and has been getting progressively colder as the Little Ice Age bites. The resulting poor harvests, combined with the devastation of agricultural land to the east by Tartar raiders, makes the winter supply of food expensive and scarce, so looking after frivolous foreign visitors is a low priority for the authorities.
What to take with you
Food can be scarce so bring your own supplies. Visitors to Prague are permitted to carry a sword and dagger and these will certainly come in handy. Actual fighting in the town is rare, but a tourist with a bag of coins on their belt, who is cluelessly gawping at the sites in the Old Town and who lacks this visible deterrent, will be a sitting duck for the innumerable petty thieves who infest the city.
Costs and money
As the royal and imperial capital under the eccentric, neglectful rule of Rudolf II, Prague is ruinously expensive, with all available rooms crammed with ambassadors, noble entourages, contractors and mercenaries. The huge numbers of alchemists, painters, architects, decorators, jewellers and zoo-keepers employed by Rudolf also don’t help the overcrowding situation. Paying for even basic accommodation could see you run through your ducats at an alarming speed.
Sights and activities
Be sure to stop and admire the beautiful Prague Bridge, built more than two centuries ago. With its massive fortifications at either end, it controls all crossings of the Vltava river as well as movement between the castle and the Old Town. Some parts of Prague Castle, which is constantly being remodelled and extended, are open to the public, not least the extraordinary indoor shopping centre of Vladislav Hall. Built for the king of Bohemia a century ago, it is often used for banquets, although for much of the time it is filled with stalls selling religious items, books, prints and jewellery.
Prague is famous for its utraquist churches, home to a national Bohemian religion which stems from the Hussite Wars (1419–c34), a bitter religious struggle between followers of the Roman Catholic church and those of Bohemian reformer Jan Hus. These churches allow the laity to receive both bread and wine during the Eucharist, as well as the clergy.
The front of the Týn Church in Old Town is decorated with a huge gold Hussite chalice symbol and a statue of George, the Hussite king of Bohemia. The Bethlehem Chapel, where Bohemian reformer Jan Hus once preached, keeps up the city’s great preaching tradition.
With special permission it should be possible to see some of the emperor’s curio collections, which are among the most exotic and extensive in Europe. They include everything from precious stones and paintings by the artist Arcimboldo to some rhino bones sold to Rudolf by King Philip II of Spain. Most striking are the emperor’s animals, which at different times have included a dodo, a cassowary, a pangolin and several cheetahs, with which he likes to hunt deer in the Bohemian forests.
Dangers and annoyances
War against the Ottoman empire and its allies has been grinding on for over six years now. New groups of troops from all over the Holy Roman Empire are on their way to fight, while wounded, penniless, disease-ridden and desperate soldiers returning from the front make the city of Prague an often dangerous and unstable place.
Avoid wandering the dark, labyrinthine corridors of the castle: Rudolf allows a lion and a tiger to roam at will, and staff members are known to have been eaten.
Eating and drinking
The total destruction of Antwerp by Spanish troops and continued fighting in the Low Countries has drastically damaged European trade, so the flow of delicious East Indian spices that had so improved Prague’s menus has been disturbed, bringing the choice back to the usual, near flavourless, beef and chicken. Supplies of mutton from Hungary have been disrupted by rebellion and by Ottoman armies – no great loss as the mutton tastes roughly the same as the beef and the chicken.
Behind its defensive walls Prague is a crowded city and both pedestrians and horsemen struggle through its narrow streets. With rain reducing many thoroughfares to filthy morasses it is a good idea to wear high boots – with the added bonus that these are now intensely fashionable.
The geography of Prague is remarkably similar to that of 400 years ago. The Prague Bridge (now called the Charles Bridge) with its defensive towers is still one of the city’s biggest attractions. The castle, too, remains an important monument, although it has undergone many architectural and stylistic changes since it was founded in around AD 880.
The Prague Castle Picture Gallery features works by Titian, Aachen and Rubens, and, happily, visitors can now wander the castle grounds without fear of tiger attacks. Even the Vladislav Hall is relatively unchanged, and still hosts banquets of a kind that would have been entirely recognisable to Rudolf II.
Prague was invaded by imperial Catholic forces in 1620, and utraquism in the city was wiped out: the statue of King George on the Týn Church was destroyed, its gold chalice replaced by a Virgin Mary.
The city’s most well-known landmark, the Gothic-style St Vitus Cathedral, is a must see for visitors and has hosted the coronation of many Czech kings and queens in its long history. Climb its 90-metre-high tower for stunning views over the city.
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For the other great Hapsburg capitals go to Vienna and Budapest. Meanwhile, to visit the home of Rudolf II’s great rival and fellow Hapsburg, Philip II, try Madrid, Spain.
Simon Winder is the author of Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe (Picador, 2013)